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To say that it has been a difficult 18 months around the world would be somewhat of an understatement, but one group that has been hardest hit has been our young people. Not being so well equipped emotionally, to deal with isolation and separation from their peers, young people have had it really tough – often losing contact with friends at a moment’s notice, with bursting bubbles and family members falling ill. Losing loved ones has had a huge impact, as has the stress of trying to do right in their education whilst often being limited by disadvantage and other issues related to what is commonly called the ‘digital divide’.

The 7th September 2021 was Youth Mental Health Day. We recognise this as being a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on the mental health of our young people. However, just like Safer Internet Day, youth mental health awareness should be a daily endeavour, not just one day a year.

The facts about youth mental health

A survey carried out by Young Minds in January this year into the impact of coronavirus on young people and their mental health needs makes for interesting reading:

“The survey carried out with 2,438 young people aged 13-25, between 26th January and 12th February 2021 showed:

  • 75% of respondents agreed that they have found the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones.
  • 67% believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.
  • 79% of respondents agreed that their mental health would start to improve when most restrictions were lifted.”

This goes some significant way to demonstrating the issues and needs for supporting young people even more than before. With that in mind, here are some signs to look out for in young people who might be feeling ok, remembering it’s ok to not be ok!

Supporting young people

Listening to their voice and how they’re responding to you in class can be a good indicator of how a student is in themselves. If you’re noticing a difference, do they sound different to usual? Are they a bit flat in their responses? What is it that’s making your teacher senses feel that something isn’t quite right?

A common partner to how they might be speaking is their body language. Does it reflect how they’re speaking? Are their arms folded, do they seem flat or lacking energy or finding it difficult to concentrate in your lesson?

It could also be that the student is behaving differently to usual. Are they answering back, quick to anger or perhaps seeming withdrawn and not as engaged as they might have been previously? Negative or withdrawn behaviour is a good indicator of a person’s state of mind and, as a teacher, you’ll be ideally placed to spot and notice differences in your learners over the numerous lessons and times you spend with them.

In the NHS’s post offering advice directly to young people, Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan, Associate National Clinical Director for Children and Young People’s Mental Health for NHS England, wrote:

“Here are some warning signs you should look out for:

  • deep or constant sadness
  • losing interest in daily life
  • increasing trouble with sleeping and eating
  • feeling helpless or worthless
  • harming yourself
  • always thinking about death.”

Being empathetic is an important tool in your toolkit to help you best support your learners and, by spotting some of the signs mentioned above, could lead you to have a ‘checking in’ conversation with a student should you feel it necessary. If you’re in a Secondary school, mentioning it to their Form Tutor would be a great way to join up thinking, creating a wrapper of care for the young person in question.

Talking tips

If you do want to talk with the young person about some of the signs you’ve spotted, there are some simple things you can do to facilitate that conversation too.

Talking in a safe space; one which is neutral and calm, and one where you can sit at eye level with a young person rather than standing over them, would be less intimidating. Listening actively, waiting for responses, and allowing quiet moments to give pupils the time to formulate their responses is important. Try not to guide the conversation and respond rather than initiate threads of conversation. Questions such as “how can I help” or “how do you feel” or “what do you think might help” are great open questions that allow the child to respond in their own way without pressure.

Being mindful in your responses is important too. Don’t belittle their feelings with comments such as “don’t be silly.” Instead, use comments such as “that must be difficult” or other responses that empathise rather than critique or offer opinion. If possible, remember to triangulate that wrapper of care for the young person with people in their home setting, such as their parents or guardians.

Don’t forget either, the important point that if it looks like there might be some kind of disclosure, you should share that what the young person is telling you; it cannot be kept secret. Often, educators are advised to follow the ‘TED’ acronym – Tell, Explain and Describe’ – and take notes, as it is sometimes difficult to remember everything in a difficult conversation such as this. If in doubt, speak with your Designated Safeguarding Lead or other appointed person in charge of Safeguarding in the school.

Either way, we know that things are currently very tough for all of us. However, we can really support our young people by giving them time, patience and understanding – as well as signposting them to some of the great resources out there, such as the Young Minds site, and if required, local social services, to help them cope with the difficulties in their lives.